Since 1990, the Northern Virginia community that wraps around Dulles International Airport has transformed from largely white and undeveloped to a bustling hub of technology companies and shopping plazas, with a large population of Latino and South Asian residents.
A four-way Democratic primary election Tuesday for the House of Delegates seat representing the area reflects that diversity at a time when candidates of color are fueling a Democratic push by to overcome razor-thin Republican majorities in Richmond.
Three Indian American men and a woman of Filipino descent are vying to replace outgoing Democratic Del. John Bell – the first time a primary election in the increasingly left-leaning 87th district does not include a white candidate.
Republican David Ramadan, who was born in Lebanon, represented the area for four years before deciding against seeking reelection in 2015.
Bell, who succeeded him, is running for the seat being left open by retiring conservative Republican Sen. Richard Black.
In a district that hasn’t favored a Republican since Ramadan narrowly won in 2013, the Democratic nominee – either Hassan Ahmad, Akshay Bhamidipati, Johanna Gusman or Suhas Subramanyam – is likely to prevail in November over Republican Bill Drennan, political analysts say.
That would add more diversity to a General Assembly that is slowlybeginning to mirror the demographic changes sweeping through portions of the state. There are currently seven state lawmakers of Asian or Latino descent – compared with zero Latinos and two Asians in 2009 – and 21 members of the legislative Black Caucus.
Two Muslim lawmakers of Palestinian descent – Democratic Dels. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke and Ibraheem Samirah of Fairfax – have also recently joined the General Assembly.
“This is one of the effects of the Donald Trump presidency,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
In 2017, when Democrats picked up 14 seats in the Virginia House, candidates of color who won seats included Jennifer Carroll Foy (Prince William), Hala Ayala (Prince William), Elizabeth Guzman (Prince William) and Kathy Tran (Fairfax).
Their success, Farnsworth said, “has encouraged still more candidates to run in 2019.”
Harsha Sarjapur, who co-founded an online group called the Loudoun County Indian Community, said more candidates of South Asian descent are preparing to run for the school and county board and other local offices.
“This is not just people who migrated here a few years ago,” Sarjapur said. “These are kids who have grown up here, and they want to stand up to combat some of the inequality that is happening.”
The four Democrats vying for Bell’s seat were all born in the United States. The district includes a large swath of Loudoun County, where there are 34,000 residents of Indian descent, 50,000 Latinos and a growing population of Muslims and Koreans, U.S. Census estimates show. A sliver of Prince William County is also part of the district.
Ahmad, 42, an immigration attorney whose parents emigrated from India, said he decided to run after trying to help people affected by Trump’s 2017 travel ban, which sought to bar visitors from certain Muslim countries. Ahmad said he and other attorneys who went to Dulles to offer pro-bono legal representation to travelers were not allowed to meet with them. “I realized that this is what happens when we sit back and don’t elect good people who believe in an inclusive community,” he said.
Bhamidipati, a 22-year-old cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University whose parents are also from India, said he was moved by a lack of state and federal funding for mental health services after a close friend committed suicide last year. “It’s a really preventable disease and we need to treat it as such,” he said.
Gusman, a human rights attorney with a Filipino father and an German American mother, said she was angered by the General Assembly’s failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment for women this year, and by the sexual assault allegations against Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
“That was kind of ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ moment,” Gusman, 35, said about Fairfax. “There wasn’t a woman running for the open seat, so I decided to step up and run.”
Subramanyam a former technology policy adviser in the Obama White House and the son of Indian immigrants, said he was motivated by escalating health care costs and the lack of tougher gun regulations amid repeated mass shootings, including the one in Virginia Beach last week that left 12 people dead.
“Whatever is going on with Trump in the White House, you can fight it at the state level,” the 32-year-old said.
All four want to expand access to affordable health care, allocate more money toward reducing traffic congestion and convince Richmond to spend more for affordable housing and schools – making it a challenge for the candidates to distinguish themselves with voters.
Subramanyam has been endorsed by Bell, Democratic Loudoun County board chairman Phyllis Randall and several other local Democrats, while raising $176,000.
Ahmad, who has raised $137,000, has endorsements from Ayala, Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Boysko of Fairfax and several labor and immigration groups.
Bhamidipati has no endorsements but raised $33,000.
Gusman raised $24,000 and has been backed by Emily’s List, which supports Democratic female candidates who favor abortion rights.
Drennan, the Republican who will face the winner in November, said the relative lack of name recognition for all of the Democrats plays in his favor.
“When you’re stuck on Route 50, it doesn’t matter what your politics are,” said Brennan, 74, a retired Air Force colonel.
If elected, he says he would advocate for more state funding for projects such as “smart” traffic lights synchronized to better handle rush hour congestion.
“I’m a dark horse, but so are the four Democrats,” he said. “In that regard, it’s a level playing field.”